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A duty to remember

Two men’s quest to keep Palestinian culture alive

CultureRights & dissent
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The entrance of th Shatila museum

The new Palestinian Museum in Birzeit is set to open this October, with its first satellite exhibit, showing the political history of Palestinian embroidery, already accessible to the public at Beirut’s Dar El-Nimer art foundation. Two museums of Palestinian culture already exist in Lebanon, albeit on a much smaller scale. They are located in the small town of Maachouq and the Shatila camp, and have been looking to the diaspora for more than 10 years.

“My museum is for these generations who are born in exile,” says Mahmoud Dakwar, who has worked all his life teaching Arabic in the Burj el-Shemali camp, a few kilometres away from Tyr in southern Lebanon. The 79-year-old man was only 11 when he was pushed out of Palestine and came to Jouaiya, not far from Burj el-Shemali, and then to nearby Maachouq, where he and his family settled two years later, in 1950. He insists that he has kept a very vivid image of Palestine; one that he feels is his mission to share. “To show new generations, so they know something about their ancestors and their culture,” he says.

Dakwar decided to do this in the best way he could think of: start a museum. He first began 27 years ago by organising an exhibition that was first meant to be temporary. It grew into a makeshift museum in a small room in his house, then, in 2004, found its proper place in a small building adjacent to the Khalil Al Wazir mosque in Maachouq. The museum now displays a rich and diverse collection: abayas with embroidered patterns, rakwehs (oriental kettles with a very narrow pot and a long handle) made with engraved copper, jars, agricultural tools; all kinds of objects which in any other context, any other historical setting, would convey nothing more than what they are. They would show the past, the daily life during times which have naturally made way for new ones. But the objects in Dakwar’s museum tell of much more than that. They are the last fragments of a lost paradise. Each item has become a relic, evoking the memory of the Nakba, the catastrophe.

What I have left from Palestine, I’m not giving to you. It’s for the museum, I want to be a part of it.

In 2004, the same year that Dakwar’s objects were moved to the building next to the mosque, a doctor living in Shatila, one of Beirut’s Palestinian camps, embarked on another, very similar, initiative.

“Have you kept something from Palestine in your house?” It is by asking this question to anyone he meets in Shatila that 68-year-old Mohammad Al-Khatib gathered the collection of his “memories museum”, located in his house in a narrow dead-end in the densely populated camp.

He remembers the first person who answered to his call. “A woman in her sixties brought me two coffee cups which used to belong to her father. When I tried to give her money in exchange, she refused. ‘What I have left from Palestine, I’m not giving to you. It’s for the museum, I want to be a part of it,’ she said.” From there on, Khatib quickly understood the necessity of a place for remembrance for Palestinians in exile.

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Mohammad Al-Khatib finishing a game of chess with a kid from the neighbourhood

Only a small patch of the sky, streaked with dozens of intertwined wires, can be seen from the street. A swinging door marks the entrance to the museum: it opens at hip level, allowing neighbours to get a quick glance inside, or wave at the owner of the place. Khatib stands in the middle of the room, next to a long table used by neighbourhood kids for chess games, or for conversations between friends. Shelves cover the walls, displaying its scattered memories to whoever wants to see them. Khatib, just like Dakwar in Maachouq, first thinks of the Palestinians living in the camps.

“There is a gap for people who live outside of Palestine. Time took a different course for them when they left. Young people don’t know the life of their grandparents, what they had in their houses or in their fields,” says Khatib.

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Mohammad Al-Khatib in his museum

He doesn’t know those times either. He comes from Al-Khalisa, a village in the far north of Palestine, which he was forced to leave when he was only six months old. “You can see it from the border,” he points out, consciously omitting that the village today has turned into a city of more than 20,000 inhabitants, with the Israeli name Kiryat Shmona.

The memory of the land, the fields and the family house is all that’s left. For those who left, stories and traditions come together to create an identity, which functions as a way to keep the hope of returning. For exiled Palestinians, who in many ways live like second-class citizens in Syria and Lebanon, or refugees elsewhere, memory is central to continue to exist as a nation. Dakwar and Khatib’s museums serve as archives to better resist time and distance.

“These are original pieces: you can feel, touch, imagine,” Dakwar insists when talking about his collection. He is a keen storyteller, joyfully presenting item after item: scissors that used to shear sheep or camels, baking utensils or old stones brought from Jerusalem.

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Mahmoud Dakwar showing a key from his collection

“I invested all my retirement money in this project,” he says. “And I am neither a member of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] nor affiliated with any NGO.” Khatib, too, shares a strong sense of duty. “I’m not a politician, an intellectual or a soldier.” So, he asked himself, “What can I do for my country?”

Both have found the same answer. For their museums, they went around the camps in Syria and Lebanon, negotiated with travellers who went to Palestine before 1948, and patiently traced the routes of exile.

Khatib is proud to exhibit a small hand mirror from Gaza, which travelled through Egypt before finally ending up in Lebanon. It might have belonged to a woman who would check her make-up in this piece of polished glass, at the time when Gaza was just a small fishing port. Objects can reveal stories inherited from the older days, carrying visitors away to forgotten eras, far from displacement and conflict. “The museum is for the world to see that we were like others, that we dressed like others. We are not thieves, we are not terrorists. We hate wars,” says Dakwar.

He slowly turns the pages of a display book with old documents inside. “This one is from when my grandfather’s grandfather bought an olive orchard. People were not rich, but they had land,” he says.

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A wall in the Shatila museum. On the left is the “boat of return”.

Birth and marriage certificates, cultivation permits, bills of sale or title deeds – all are exhibited in the museum, next to the deeply symbolic keys of abandoned houses. Most documents are photocopies. “The keys were easier to obtain than the documents, people still want to keep them,” says Dakwar. Upon their return, they will be essential. “I haven’t lost hope. Palestine is a wide land and there is enough space for everyone. But we are far from returning while I’m alive, so I work and push hard for future generations. That’s why I plant these emotions in their hearts, and those of my colleagues, acquaintances and visitors.”

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